Borders, Boundaries, Bodies: Caliban Re-Membered

By Ray Chandrasekara.

Published by The Humanities Collection

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

The last decade or so, right after the fall of Suharto in 1998, has seen the rise of important literary voices in Indonesia. Part of the new configuration of previously suppressed voices -- and spaces -- has risen from the works of Indonesia’s preeminent writer and literary figure, Pramoedya Ananta Toer. Toer’s works, while insisting on nationalist designs in the formation of Indonesia under Dutch colonial rule, also advances the need to re-member the voices of the silenced, the multitudes that were summarily murdered, those silenced by state intimidation and most importantly, the voice of the woman. His characters are persons crafted from the interstices of history, often marginalized or erased But within this covenant, the voice of the nyai (concubine) is heard, the engaging and seductive nationalist voice that draws the reader to Toer’s This Earth of Mankind (Bumi Manusia). That she is a concubine adds a deeper level of understanding to the circumstance that gave rise to the modern Indonesian woman, composed sometimes of dissonant voices, discordant at some junctures, dissident at other. If colonial authority was the key paradigm for representing and understanding the community, and if identity in this period arose from the displacement of the myth of Dutch apparatuses as a “seamless organic continuum,” then the nyai is ideally placed to understand the ways in which alterity itself is constitutive of her identity. Nyai Ontosoroh, unable to find a detour around the issue of imperial repression but determined to tell her story within the national signified—provides the inevitable conduit to the larger story that encompasses the nascent nation—Indonesia. By positing gender as a site for representing and reconstructing new identities, the nyai establishes that condition of existence which previously had been muted and unrepresented in both the local and colonial discourses. The nyai’s is the sole voice standing in opposition to the fictional histories of both the Dutch colonial and local priyayi (artistoctratic) apparatuses. Her liminal status in the culture of empire allows her to read and understand colonial intentions as both threat and possibility and how modes of alterity can and do serve as gateways to identity. We are confronted with some very important caveats in this narrative: how does one read an oppositional discourse that derives its authority and identity from the institution of empire and imperial praxis? How does one deal with the native woman of empire and explain or rationalise feminine subjectivity and institutional function beyond male discourse or desire? Is the nyai merely an intercessor of a social relation in which she is deployed as mediator of racial anxieties, an object of fantasies, or both? If the important figure of nyai Ontosoroh represents itself as both the absolute form of alterity (a stereotype defined by Bhabha as the fetishized and fixed “form of difference”), and simultaneously a free agent attempting to stage its consciousness of freedom within the limits imposed by imperial/local structures of authority, does she then become a fixed yet constantly shifting site of inscription?

Keywords: Colonialism, Postcolonialism, Gender, Third World Feminisms

The International Journal of the Humanities, Volume 5, Issue 10, pp.189-198. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 543.300KB).

Ray Chandrasekara

Assistant Professor, Department of Arts and Sciences, Albany College of Pharmacy, USA

Interests in literature, political science, history and culture of Asian societies, particularly Southeast Asia, India and Japan. Currently an assistant profesor of Asian Studies in Albany College, New York.


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